Durban - The uncertainty over the future of Addington Hospital’s R120 million cancer treatment machines has prompted a health workers’ union to approach the South African Human Rights Commission.
The Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Union of SA (Hospersa) has also undertaken to provide legal advice to patients who want to take the matter to court.
After being out of action for months while the KwaZuluNatal Department of Health and the supplier, Tecmed, fought over maintenance costs and allegations of tender irregularities, the machines were switched on again recently after the parties appeared to come to a compromise.
But Hospersa said on Thursday that although patients were now receiving radiation treatment in the hospital’s oncology unit, the issue was far from resolved.
“The fact… is that the department denied cancer patients the care they needed for five months. This is a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed right to health. We can no longer tolerate continued misuse of health services,” said union spokeswoman Michelle Connolly.
“We want (Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni) Dhlomo to take responsibility and apologise for the debacle. Thus far all we have heard are lame excuses and effectively what amounts to passing the buck to the service provider. He must give some assurance that this will never happen again and that the mismanagement of public resources by his department will stop,” said Connolly.
The union said it planned to lodge a complaint with the commission, and would picket outside the hospital on Saturday.
“The machines are back on, but there is still no secure and permanent arrangement to assure patients’ treatment will continue uninterrupted from now on,” said Connolly.
She said the department had also not yet paid Tecmed the money owing to it.
Hospersa planned to hand over a memorandum to the MEC demanding that he sign a contract with Tecmed or get a reliable maintenance service provider tied to a contract for patients’ security.
During the shutdown, patients were transferred to Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital for treatment, but Connolly said the cancer facility there already had a full roster.
“The patients were effectively referred to a long waiting list. Some who were meant to have five radiotherapy treatments ended up only having one,” she said. “Their disease advanced, their condition went from treatable to terminal.”
Dr Sibongile Zungu, head of the KZN Department of Health, said on Thursday that she did not know about Hospersa’s gripes and its plan to picket. She appealed for patience as the department tried to resolve issues hindering the provision of health care.
Zungu said patients were given alternative access to treatment.
“When there is suspected corrupt activities which erode our limited resources, the department tries to root it out to save money in order to provide quality services,” she said. “We can either sit and live with corruption and let money be thrown away from patients or deal with it.”
Tecmed would be on a month-to-month contract until the investigation was resolved, she said, adding that the department had also advised the company’s Swiss parent, Varian Medical Systems, of the alleged irregularities in the procurement of the machines.
The Daily News reported in December that the two state-of-the-art radiation machines were shut down due to lack of maintenance after Tecmed had not received the R400 000 monthly maintenance payments from the department.
Tecmed’s executive chairman, Werner Begere, said this week that his company had been left with no choice but to stop the maintenance. “Our whole business is people’s lives. We give a 365-day service around the country, but we had to draw the line. We did not expect that this (payment) would take such a long time,” he said.
The maintenance fee had not been paid for 10 months and attempts by Tecmed to find out why proved futile, he said.
“We have always had a good relationship with the department… but for whatever reason the Addington situation became a huge issue. This is regrettable,” said Begere.
He said the assurance by Dhlomo that the outstanding amount would be paid was enough for them to make the machines operational again.